Assessing Personality: Phlegmatic? Neurotic? Tests Can Help Find Out

By Waters, Jen | The World and I, August 2004 | Go to article overview

Assessing Personality: Phlegmatic? Neurotic? Tests Can Help Find Out


Waters, Jen, The World and I


Jen Waters is a staff writer for The Washington Times.

After taking the Myers-Briggs personality test, a person is categorized by four of eight distinguishing factors, but these classifications are only some of the many ways people can be understood.

"For thousands of years, people have been trying to describe people," says Dr. Thomas Wise, director of psychiatry and behavioral services at Inova Health Systems in Fairfax. "In the time of Hippocrates, people were labeled as ' phlegmatic' or 'bilious.' "

Hundreds of personality tests are available today. Some focus on a specific strength or weakness, while others give a general overview of a person's temperament. The exams are used in professional, medical, and research settings to better understand a person's tendencies.

Although the Myers-Briggs test is popular with the public, psychiatrists and psychologists don't use it when diagnosing a patient, Wise says. This exam is used most often in the workplace or schools for determining a person's skills.

One of the tests more widely used among psychologists to determine how the personality might affect physical or mental health is the EPI, the Eysenck Personality Inventory, which was developed by the late Hans Eysenck, a German research psychologist. It focuses on extroversion versus introversion and neuroticism versus stability.

Extroverts like to be around people, and they usually have a lot of energy, Wise says. When people are extremely extroverted, however, they tend to have problems delaying gratification, which can lead to behaviors that require restraint, such as overeating or substance abuse.

On the contrary, introverts are people who enjoy being alone, and they tend to be less energetic. Because they can more easily delay gratification, they are more able to do something today that might not pay off for a few years. If people are extremely introverted, however, they have a propensity for depression. They also can be uncomfortable around people.

Further, if people score high for neuroticism on the EPI, it means they are more likely to experience vulnerability, depression, anxiety, and anger. This type of person would live in a constant state of worry.

"People who are very low on the scale [for neuroticism] might have problems if they were going to take a test because they wouldn't be motivated by any anxiety or fear of failure," Wise says. "You want to be in the middle on the scale. You want to be toward average."

Another personality test widely used by psychologists is the NEO Personality Inventory - Revised, which was designed by Paul Costa, the chief of the laboratory of personality and cognition in the Gerontology Research Center at the National Institute on Aging in Bethesda, Maryland. The exam assesses five main factors of personality: the emotional, interpersonal, experiential, attitudinal, and motivational. Its results can be applied in vocational counseling, behavioral medicine, clinical psychology, psychiatric treatment, and research.

Qualities measured in the test include whether someone is open to new experiences, generally agreeable and consciously goal-directed, Wise says.

Understanding personality "is very complicated," he says. "How can you have very few words to describe people who are complex? No one has the final answer, but you do the best you can. It's difficult to make a general statement. People can't be reduced to a pen-and-paper test."

Of all the personality tests available, the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory is probably used in the greatest number of disciplines, says Robert Archer, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Eastern Virginia Medical School in Norfolk, Virginia. …

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